By Laurence Vittes
Earlier this year Joanna Wallfisch released Far Away From Any Place Called Home, a song cycle inspired by a musical quest down the West Coast of America in August 2016—all by bicycle. She had just released her third recording, Gardens In My Mind, and was in the midst of feeling “wing-clipped” by New York City and not too enthusiastic at the prospect of losing money on the road. The trip covered 1,154 miles from Portland to Los Angeles during which she performed 16 solo shows in as many different cities as possible.
Wallfisch plays the baritone ukulele as her primary instrument on her new recording, which is featured on the following tracks: “Road Trip,” “In Flight Service,” “Far Away From Any Place Called Home,” and “Ballet Of Birds.” On her previous album she featured both baritone and soprano ukulele. When she performs solo or with her band she plays all of her music on the ukulele.
Wallfisch will head to Australia for nine weeks beginning in September for a seven-week book- and album-release tour. She will travel more than 1,600 miles by bicycle between Brisbane and Hobart on the island of Tasmania. Also in September, Wallfisch’s debut book, The Great Song Cycle; Portland to Los Angeles on Two Wheels and a Song, is schedule to be published by UWA Press in Perth.
Wallfisch has a deep musical heritage. Her parents are the Australian violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch and the London-born cellist Raphael Wallfisch. Her grandmother Anita Lasker Wallfisch, now 94, survived Auschwitz because she played the cello in the camp’s women’s orchestra, and post-liberation became a founding member of the English Chamber Orchestra. Brother Simon is a renowned cellist and opera singer, and eldest brother Benjamin is an Oscar- and Grammy-nominated film composer.
What was it like when you told your parents that you were going to make the ukulele (one of) your main instruments? -And why did you make the choice?
I picked up the ukulele in 2012 as a fun instrument to busk with, and write songs on. I never could have predicted that it would become such an inherent part of my musical and creative output. One of the first outings I had with my ukulele was in Brooklyn at a circus space called The Muse. I had devised an act where I played and sang Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The Ends Of Love” on three ukuleles whilst suspended and spinning upside-down on a trapeze. My parents have always been incredibly supportive and encouraging me to pursue art in as fulfilling a way as possible, and they saw immediately that the ukulele was a perfect vehicle for me to express my inner muse.
Have you ever played with your father?
Actually yes. A couple of years ago I was invited to perform a solo house concert just outside of London. My father joined me on one of my own songs called “Anymore,” which I wrote for piano, voice and cello. I have written many arrangements for string quartet and solo cello, and this was a very special occasion where I could give my dad music that I had written and we performed together. The only other time we have played together was when I was five years old and I performed an improvised ballet as he played The Dying Swan.
When you go on that Australian tour later this year what instruments will you be going to take, and what kind of carrying cases?
I will be taking my baritone ukulele in a carbon fiber case made by Kala Brand. I will also be taking my RCBoss30 loop pedal.
I love my baritone ukulele. I find it is diverse enough, and has a sweetness that lends itself well to my songs.
What’s it like going on a long tour like that—do you play the same music every night or improvise?
I have a large repertoire of original songs, enough to fill about three hours, which means that, luckily, I can mix it up each night. That said, with my new album I like to perform those songs in order since they tell a particular story that has an inbuilt arc; so I make my set lists according to the venue, time I have onstage, and the audience. The Australian tour is totally unique since I will be traveling by bicycle. This gives touring an entirely new perspective and focus, not to mention a backstory and lots of joie de vivre that can sometimes otherwise be lost when you’re on the road for weeks on end.
What are the usual questions you’re asked about the ukulele after concerts? Are audiences always stunned by what you can do with it?
Because I play a baritone ukulele many people have not seen it before. “Is that a small guitar,” is a common question. But also, “Wow, it has such a rich sound.” I love my baritone ukulele. I find it is diverse enough, and has a sweetness that lends itself well to my songs.
Is it easy switching between the soprano and baritone ukes?
For sure—they are tuned a fourth apart, and though the size is slightly different I don’t find it any trouble switching between. These days, to save on carrying multiple instruments with me, I tend to use a Shubb capo to change the keys, which adds to the diversity of the instrument.